Go Ahead -- Diss Arnold, But Not His Proposal

Monday, April 25, 2005

Go Ahead -- Diss Arnold, But Not His Proposal

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has apparently abandoned his merit pay proposal for public school teachers. Instead, the governor is talking about a proposal for what he calls “combat pay” — teachers who work in inner-city schools or other disadvantaged districts would receive supplemental pay.

According to news reports, Schwarzenegger said these teachers should be offered more money “to go to the inner-city schools ... because it's dangerous to be there and it's difficult to teach.” But some teachers or teacher union leaders reacted negatively to Schwarzenegger’s concept.

“I think people like to paint urban students as dangerous, and I don't think that's true," said an eighth grade teacher in Oakland. Margaret Shelleda, a spokesperson for the California Federation of Teachers, also bristled at the gov.’s remark:
“I find the words really offensive, and so do virtually all educators. We're talking about schools that are facing serious challenges and need a lot of help. It doesn't help to have phrases like ‘combat pay’ thrown around.”
I understand the cynicism that many teachers feel these days — most politicians only think about public schools when it comes time for a good photo-op. But if California teachers step back and take a deep breath, they may realize that the Governator has presented them with a decent proposal.

Yes, Schwarzenegger was guilty of hyperbole in using the word “dangerous.” Some indicators suggest that school violence — despite its prominent play on TV news — has actually declined. Having said that, many urban schools still are places with a lot of fighting, harassment and bullying.

Last year, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that 5.4 percent of high school students skipped at least one day of school because of concerns for their personal safety. That’s not a high percentage, but apply that percentage to the nation’s high schools and suddenly you’re talking about many thousands of kids who miss days of school because they don’t feel safe there.

And this 2003 study of middle school students in Oakland, Calif., for example, found that 1 in 10 were threatened with a weapon in the previous 12 months, and 3 in 10 students had had their property stolen or damaged at school.

Shelleda’s comment reflects the tendency of those within the educational establishment to spin significant problems as mere “challenges.” But whatever they think of the state of violence in public schools, there are other good reasons to offer stronger incentives to attract teachers to inner-city schools.

For starters, teacher pay tends to be lower in inner-city schools than in suburban districts. In addition, urban school systems tend to have more teachers who are either uncertified or are teaching outside of their certification.

Did the governor choose his words poorly? Yes. But the teachers union should stop bristling and step up to the plate. If they don't like the words "combat pay," think of some others.

Instead of allowing Schwarzenegger to craft this combat-pay proposal by himself or with conservative allies, Shelleda’s union should ask for a seat at the table and help the governor shape a sensible “combat pay” provision. This idea could attract and keep better teachers in the schools where they are needed the most.

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